Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Curious Case of Carmenere

Carmenere, a red Chilean grape beginning to pop up on more and more good wine lists, has had a long road to broad public knowledge – and a lot of folks, including me, have been confused about it for a long time.
No, not Carmen's hair...Carmenere!
Point of fact, the very first time I wrote about Carmenere 12 years ago, I wrote that it was “basically a regional version of merlot” – which is completely and utterly incorrect. Carmenere is very much its own grape. Why the confusion?

Carmenere’s origin story begins in Bordeaux, France. Bordeaux reds are typically blends of five grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Prior to the 1860’s, there was a “sixth varietal” used in the blend – Carmenere. The name comes from the French “carmin” – referring to the dark red color the vine leaves turn in the fall.

The Phylloxera epidemic in the 1860’s wiped out practically all the Carmenere vines in Europe. (It’s still basically extinct on the Continent.) When wine production picked back up again, Bordeaux went forth with five varietals. Just prior to the epidemic, however, cuttings from Carmenere were sent to Chile, where the cuttings flourished.

Only trouble – Carmenere vines look a lot like Merlot, so for much of the 1900’s, much of the Carmenere was unwittingly blended with Merlot, giving Chilean merlot a distinctive character. Once they got everything sorted out, Carmenere reared its head as a stand-alone varietal. Currently, Carmenere has become Chile’s “national grape” – thriving outside Bordeaux much as Malbec does in Argentina.

What to expect from a Carmenere if you happen to run across one? Rather than tasting like a Merlot, I find Carmenere be closer to its cousins Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. There are usually some dark cherry, berry, and spice flavors, often accompanied by a smoky, graphite type undertone. The tannins tend not to be as powerful as Cab Sauv, and there’s often an underlying earthy flavor, hearkening back to its French roots. They also usually clock in at 12-13% alcohol, so they’re a little subtler.

Another nice thing about Carmenere – and many Chilean wines – is that they’re relatively inexpensive. I’ve noticed that with sub-$10 Carmenere, the winemakers tend to go with a jammy, fruity style since so many people expect it to taste like a merlot. Spend just a couple of bucks more – like the $12-18 range, and you’ll have much better luck. Here are a few that I’ve had the chance to try recently:

Errazuriz “MAX” 2016 Carmenere Reserva ($16) – The “Max” refers to the winery’s founder, rather than some sort of nod to the potentially big, brutish nature of the wine. This nod would be misleading. While this is certainly a full-flavored wine, it’s not harsh or hot in any way. The notes that come through are smooth cherry and plum, backed with a very nice smokiness that would carom nicely off anything with black pepper.

Case in point, we tried this wine alongside a steak and pepper quesadilla that the SPinC whipped up for dinner, and it was honestly one of the better pairings I’ve had in awhile. Certainly can recommend this one.

Cono Sur “Bicicleta” 2016 Carmenere – The least expensive of the wines, retailing at $13 (and on sale for $10!), this one was a little rougher around the edges. Composed of 85% Carmenere and 15% “Other,” which I assume is largely Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine from the Valle Central packs a little more oomph. The fruits are bigger and plummier, with some brambly blackberry thrown in. There’s also a real smokiness to this wine when it’s first opened.

That smokiness could be a real benefit if you’re popping and pouring alongside anything grilled or smoked. I can easily imagine this alongside some smoked brisket or turkey. It would be an excellent value for a barbecue if you want something for your red wine loving friends. Once the weather cools, it would pair nicely with a big stew.

Finally, a bottle of Dos Almas 2015 Carmenere Reserva made its way to the door of Vine HQ. Dos Almas hails from Chile, but it’s owned by Zonin, an Italian family winery collective. Presented with other countries’ terroir, winemakers have an opportunity to test their techniques on new varietals and soil. This particular international collaboration (Dos Almas translates as “Two Spirits” in reflection) is a success.

The Italian sensibility comes through in this wine from the Colchuaga region. Among the flavors of blueberry and cherry, there’s a rustic tannic backbone throughout, echoing a Barbera or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Rich without being overly heavy, there’s a hint of flint and some coffee and vanilla lingering at the end.

While I would imagine beef or lamb would be obvious pairings, I turned some of our week’s farmshare yield and some leftover Mike’s Magic Marinara into an eggplant parmesan. The slight bitterness of the eggplant and the sweetness of the sauce played off the wine’s depth quite nicely. For $15, it’s a nice, flexible dinner wine that opens up nicely.

Two other quick notes about Carmenere. First, “Reserva” on the label doesn’t have any legal significance – it just typically means it’s been crafted with a little more care. Second, serving it slightly below room temperature improves Carmenere’s balance, I find. Enjoy!

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